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Are we in a new golden age of movie musicals?
In the nearly two decades since "Chicago" became an Oscar best picture-winning hit, Hollywood has typically doled out two or three movie musicals a year, ranging from awesome ("Mamma Mia!") to arid ("Jersey Boys") to downright abysmal ("Les Misérables").
But partly because of pandemic-delayed releases, we'll have nearly 10 new entries to the genre by the end of 2021, including Steven Spielberg's reimagined "West Side Story" (in theaters Dec. 10) and Netflix's "Tick, Tick ... Boom!" (in theaters Nov. 12, streaming Nov. 19), from late "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson.
The newest is "Dear Evan Hansen," adapted from the six-time Tony-winning best musical about an awkward teenage boy (Ben Platt) who lies about being friends with a classmate who committed suicide in a well-intentioned attempt to comfort his family. The film has been pummeled by critics (33% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), who have taken issue with the movie's messy handling of mental health and social media, as well as the casting of the 28-year-old Platt as Evan, reprising the role he won a best actor Tony for on Broadway.
'See the movie': 'Dear Evan Hansen' director has no doubts about Ben Platt's casting
After watching the year's other movie musicals, here's where "Evan Hansen" stacks up (so far):
Now streaming on Amazon Prime
A film so manufactured that it may as well have come straight off an Amazon assembly line, this bargain bin "Cinderella" works hard to update the classic fairy tale, but loses all its magic in the process. Ella (Camila Cabello) is now a spunky, career-minded businesswoman who would rather make dresses in her spacious basement apartment than try to woo a prince (Nicholas Galitzine). As admirable as that is, writer/director Kay Cannon totally defangs Ella's wicked stepmother (Idina Menzel) and stepsisters (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer), who, unlike the trailer suggests, push her to marry for money so she can have a better life. (They even do their own laundry while belting Madonna, no less!) With no stakes to speak of, the movie's only saving grace is the charismatic Billy Porter, who flies in to sing Earth, Wind & Fire as Ella's brassy and benevolent Fabulous Godmother.
5. 'Come From Away'
Now streaming on Apple TV+
Following the success of last year's "Hamilton" on Disney+, the producers of "Come From Away" filmed a live performance of the Broadway hit for an audience of 9/11 survivors and front-line workers this spring. The Tony Award-winning musical tells the incredible true story of a small Canadian town that welcomed 7,000 stranded travelers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. With a small cast of a dozen actors flitting around and playing multiple characters, it can be hard to connect to any one storyline, and the twee score of vaguely Celtic ballads is only occasionally rousing. But you can't fault a show that's so intent on preaching empathy and kindness, and "Come From Away" certainly has its heart in the right place, if not much else.
4. 'Dear Evan Hansen'
In theaters now
No thanks to his hair and makeup team, Platt is bizarrely styled to look like a tax auditor who wandered into a high school English class. The musical’s cringey morals are also only magnified in tight close-ups, with songs like "For Forever" and "Words Fail" that come across as way more sociopathic than sweet. And yet, there are still aspects to admire of director Stephen Chbosky’s slick adaptation, which comes alive whenever its sensational cast of supporting women are onscreen. Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg all sing and suffer gorgeously. But it's MVP Julianne Moore, as Evan’s patient and overworked mom, who delivers the film's most tear-jerking moment in the aching "So Big/So Small."
3. 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'
Now streaming on Amazon Prime
From a filmmaking standpoint, there's nothing remarkable about "Jamie," which is adapted from a West End musical and based on a 2011 TV documentary about a British teen-turned-drag queen (played by Max Harwood). The quick-cut editing is whiplash-inducing, and the neon-drenched musical numbers gave us PTSD after last year's similarly flashy "The Prom." But an insanely catchy score goes a long way, and we haven't stopped humming the peppy title track or "Don't Even Know It" for weeks now. And even in its most cloying scenes, there's something very moving about the movie's warm embrace of queer joy. Jamie is perennially supported by his mom (Sarah Lancashire), best friend (Lauren Patel) and drag mentor (Richard E. Grant), who reminds him that he stands on the shoulders of his gay elders, a generation of whom were lost to HIV/AIDS.
2. 'In the Heights'
Available to buy or rent
Few modern directors know their way around a movie musical better than Jon M. Chu, who's been tapped to helm the highly anticipated "Wicked" adaptation in light of his phenomenal work on "In the Heights." Set in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, the film playfully pays homage to musicals of old with a Busby Berkeley-style hip-hop number in a public swimming pool, and characters channeling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a gravity-defying dance on the side of a building. Other inventive touches – a record scratch on a manhole cover, salon mannequins serving as a de facto Greek chorus – show Chu proudly leaning into the genre's fantastical possibilities without ever losing sight of the story's emotional center.
Anthony Ramos delivers a star-making turn as Usnavi, a bodega owner wrestling with leaving his tight-knit Latino community, and the musical's Tony-winning creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, makes a scene-stealing cameo as a piragua vendor. And we can't forget Corey Hawkins, playing Usnavi's effortlessly suave best friend Benny, who should seriously be cast in every movie musical from here on out.
Now streaming on Amazon Prime
Nothing we say here could prepare you for the inspired lunacy of "Annette," which takes itself both completely seriously and not at all. Directed by French auteur Leos Carax ("Holy Motors"), from a concept by offbeat pop/rock duo Sparks (who also wrote the film's strangely entrancing songs), the movie follows a sadistic shock comedian (Adam Driver) and his angelic opera-singer wife (Marion Cotillard), whose doomed matrimony is upended by the birth of their daughter, Annette (played by an uncanny yet wholly adorable puppet, a fact that is blessedly never acknowledged by any of the characters).
By now, you've probably seen the many Twitter memes of Baby Annette, who (spoiler alert!) becomes a global singing sensation, and Carax continually ramps up the absurdity as he archly satirizes celebrity culture and toxic masculinity. Driver and Cotillard fully commit to their characters, but it's Baby Annette and "The Big Bang Theory" alum Simon Helberg who run away with the movie, the latter playing an aspiring conductor who ironically narrates some of the film's most gleefully ridiculous moments.
Everything you need to know about 'Annette': From musical sex to the 'disturbing' puppet baby
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Dear Evan Hansen': Ranking 2021's best movie musicals (so far)